Puig’s most successful novel is generally viewed as The Kiss of the Spider Woman, which was given the Hollywood treatment in the 1980s (John Hurt won an Oscar for Best Actor and the film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director Oscars). The Buenos Aires Affair pre-dated Kiss, and was Puig’s first foray away from ‘safe’ novels and into seedier topics and more experimental narrative techniques. I can appreciate that he was trying for something different but this was an uncomfortable and not particularly enjoyable read.
Set in Buenos Aires, the novel is subtitled “A Detective Story”, but I found the real mystery was trying to figure out why Puig chose the plot and characters he did. The novel follows Gladys and Leopoldo, two 30- 40 something citizens of Buenos Aires, whose lives are on a crash course towards a sexual relationship that will not end well. Gladys is a neurotic and sexually repressed artist and Leopoldo is a successful art critic with violent (even murderous) masochistic sexual preferences.
In addition to subject choice, the plot was hard to follow- there are flashbacks and flashforwards, interior thoughts and dreamscapes, stream of consciousness diatribes, etc. The NYT praised Puig for using “at least 14 different narrative methods”- I found these multiple methods distracting and a hindrance to the plot. [Maybe I just like my plot ‘apparent’: the NYT compares Puig to Faulkner (who I also passionately dislike) and refers to both men as “master[s] of occluded narrative”…]
Finally, I wasn’t endeared to either of the main characters, so their eventual disastrous relationship wasn’t emotionally meaningful.
Puig’s real life was more interesting to me than this novel. He was born in 1932 just outside Buenos Aires, and wrote novels that challenged the system by criticizing the government and discussing ‘sexual deviancy’. This got his books banned and he self-exiled to Brazil and Mexico so he could continue to write. He was openly homosexual in a time when that was a challenge. From the introduction to the Dalkey Archive Press’ 2010 edition:
…Puig would see his book stripped from store shelves, his hard-won place in Argentine literature effaced, his very life put at risk. Puig’s audacity during a time of systematic repression ensured that one of his great works—the novel that saw him begin to embrace his own sexuality in his writing and transition away from the relatively safe experiments of his early novels—would be denied the audience it deserved.
In response to the double dose of female/homosexual sexuality and anti-government sentiment was swift: Upon release, The Buenos Aires Affair was attacked by the largely Peronist press, television interviews were cancelled, and it faced soft-peddled censorship almost from its date of publication, culminating in the book’s formal branding as pornography in early 1974, and in Puig’s virtual “erasure” (to quote Levine) from Argentine literary culture.
#CBRbingo- Banned/ Challenged books